SJF • Pentecost b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
I realize it is a bit out of season, but as I read the lessons for this Feast of Pentecost, the feast celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, for some reason or other, I thought of one of my favorite movies — “Miracle on 34th Street.” I don’t think it is just because of the red of Santa Claus’s outfit matching the red so many of us are wearing here, on this feast of the descent of the Holy Spirit; rather it is the theme of promise, hope and guidance that ring through both the film and our Scripture passages this morning — far as we are from both Thanksgiving Day and Christmas!
For those very few who have never seen the film, I apologize in advance for any spoilers this sermon might contain — but I trust if you’ve not seen it you will not find it spoiled by hearing any details. After all, I watch it every year and it is just as much a joy as it was the first time I remember seeing it, when I was in fourth grade and they showed it at my school as part of a Christmas celebration — back in the days when public schools had Christmas celebrations!
In any case, late in the film, Susan (the skeptical little girl with the modern mother) finally comes to believe in Santa Claus. Her faith is not quite perfect, however, and she decides to put Santa Claus to the test. As Christmas approaches she hands him a real estate ad and tells him that that is what she wants for Christmas. Naturally the old man says, “You mean you want a dollhouse like this.” To which she replies, “No, I want a real house like that, and if you can’t get it for me then I’ll know you aren’t Santa Claus but just a nice old man with a white beard.” The old man protests, “But children wish for things all the time that they couldn’t possibly use — like a real airplane — but that doesn’t mean Santa Claus isn’t Santa Claus.” And as the child looks ever more skeptical, old Kris Kringle says, “But I’ll do what I can.” And in the end — spoiler alert — he does manage to provide the house for the little girl, and her mother and prospective stepfather — the attorney who proved that the old man was Santa Claus indeed.
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The reason I cite this sentimental story lies in the fact that it contains those same three elements of promise, hope and guidance that run through our Scripture readings.
Kris Kringle promises that he will do what he can to get the little girl the house she so much wants. And of course she wants it not so much because it is a house, and they are living in an apartment now — even with a swing in the back yard — but because of what it means for the new family of which she hopes to be a part.
And, of course, that is where the hope comes in — in this case a hope closely allied with faith. For as her skeptical impulses reappear when she doubts that the old man can deliver on his promise, it is her mother — also a convert to accepting the old man for who he is — who tells the confused child that, “Faith is believing even when common sense tells you not to.”
Finally, the old man doesn’t provide the house by buying it himself. His own financial resources are very limited, and he spent the biggest money he ever came into — when Macy’s and Gimbels gave him a joint bonus — to buy an X-ray machine for his doctor friend. But what he can do he does — which is to guide this new family to find the house, trusting that the little girl will keep her eyes open and see it on the road as they drive by the housing development out on Long Island to which he has given them directions. And just to be sure the adults realize that the magic of Santa Claus is involved, he leaves his trusty cane behind, resting by the fireplace as a sign of having done his work.
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“Faith is believing even when common sense tells you not to.” Certainly common sense should have told the apostles that dead people don’t come back to life, and that whatever promises Jesus may have made to them prior to his crucifixion, they were very unlikely to be fulfilled. They were, after all — look at them — a motley collection of low-level civil servants and small-time businessmen and laborers at best. None of them was educated past whatever rudiments of learning they might have picked up in their village synagogue. Their faith and hope had been rekindled by the resurrection — but still, after the ascension, when Jesus was gone for good and all, taken from their sight, there was a gap of several days before anything remarkable happened. As I noted last week, they even began to get a little insecure and decided to jump the gun and choose a successor to Judas, even though Jesus had given them no such instructions.
And yet, somehow, their faith still continued; their faith and their hope — which hopes not for what it sees, as Saint Paul puts it, but for that for which it waits in patience; perhaps, as Susan’s mother said, even when common sense tells you not to. And so the promised Spirit came at last — came to revive that dwindling spark of faith and hope into a vibrant flame, in fulfillment of the promise.
But what did that Spirit provide? It did not shower them with riches or give them the power to turn straw into gold — but it gave them the trust to pool all of their resources and contribute to the needs of the saints, so that there was not a needy person among them.
Nor did the Spirit give them high office or make them kings and princes of earthly realms — recall that’s what Satan promised he would do for Jesus; but the Spirit does not need Satan’s tricks. Instead the Spirit gave them the courage and strength to speak — indeed to confront those very kings and princes of the earthly realms with the truth of the gospel, and the sword not of Caesar but of that same Spirit who empowered them to work.
In short, the Spirit helped them in their weakness by giving them guidance, guidance to use their gifts and talents in the service of the church and of God. The Spirit ledthem, but did not force them, into the truth of God. The Spirit led them as a companion on the way, guiding them through the rough patches that would come — not solving all their problems for them, but like a good teacher showing them the way to solve the problems for themselves, with all the power the Spirit would awaken and stir to life in them. The Spirit would — as the name suggests — inspire them to do great things.
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The church still lives with the call to have faith, and to hope, even when common sense tells you not to. For we have received the same promise that the apostles received, the promises handed on from them to us, down through the ages. Even though we have, as Saint Paul says, the fruits of the Spirit, we still live in that not-yet time, the unfulfilled promise-time, as we wait for our final adoption, the redemption of our bodies. But in this waiting time, the Spirit is with us to comfort and to aid us in the work God gives us in the meantime, that in-between time, which is to spread the word of that promise, and show by our acts of love and service that living in that promise makes a difference even in the here and now.
For the church is still here, in the here and now, and the church itself is the sign that God’s promise will be fulfilled — for surely the church would have disappeared long ago were it just a human undertaking, if it were not for the power of God, sustaining it, and God’s Holy Spirit dwelling with it — with us. The church itself is a sign of God’s living, loving promise, like Kris Kringle’s cane left by the fireplace, tellingly resembling a shepherd’s crook, the symbol of care and guidance, and a promise fulfilled: I will not leave you comfortless.
Let us continue, my friends, to trust that promise, my friends, to live in hope and under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, that we too may fulfill that highest calling: to be saints of God, for the sake of his love, and for the good of all the Church.+